The Sunflower III--On Forgiveness
Bill Long 10/2/05
My Response to Wiesenthal's Dilemma
Fifty-three scholars, prominent thinkers or participants in the Holocaust responded to Wiesenthal's story and question. Some were provocative responses because they told us about Wiesenthal the man--such as Albert Speer's recollection of Wiesenthal's deep humanity when they faced each other in 1975 at the latter's Documentation Center in Vienna. Some were insipid--pallid recitals of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness or official church pronouncements on the Holocaust. The most eloquent responses, in my judgment, were those of the Dalai Lama and Abraham Joshua Heschel who responded to the question with stories of their own. But, frankly, I was not interested so much in their response but in my own. So, I sat down and thought through the question that Wiesenthal posed: what would I have done in that situation? Here is my, probably jarringly unexpected, response.
The Failure of Imagination
My first response is to say that it is an impossible question even to try to answer, not because possible answers are not readily available but because the situation is so removed from us that it is akin to answering the question of how we would respond if we were whisked away to a different planet. Let me illustrate the problem by sharing a similar conundrum I have had for a long time. Everyone knows that in the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that Japanese-Americans were rounded up on the West Coast and thrown into internment camps for the duration of the war. Civil liberties were trampled upon, property was confiscated, and upstanding American citizens were deprived of things that our beloved Constution promises them. All of this was done right out in the open. When the legality of the exclusion order came to the US Supreme Court in the 1944 Korematsu case, the Court held, 6-3, that the actions against the Japanese were justified because of wartime exigencies. The men who would become the greatest civil libertarians in the history of the Supreme Court (Hugo Black and William Douglas) voted to uphold the action.
How could this be? I simply conclude that those of us who were not alive and fully aware of our surroundings in the early 1940s (which now is probably more than 90% of Americans) just don't and can't really understand the visceral fear and palpable hatred in the air, not simply on the West Coast, but througout the country. Thucydides may have been the first, but was definitely not the last, to tell us how wartime hysterics change everything and mix up the moral calculus almost completely. Therefore, I would say, first of all, that the question Wiesenthal poses is unanswerable even if, in my judgment, it is profitable to discuss. But...
Second, the Wrong Question
Second, I would suggest that Wiesenthal raises the wrong question. He was so sure that it was the right question because, as he says: "The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness" (97). I would contend that the "question" of forgiveness is too complex a question here, and, in fact, it has to be broken down into about seven or eight questions in order for a useful discussion to take place (I list some of those questions below). To ask about forgiveness is to ask about love or justice or any of the huge questions which we often want to pose because they are always good to start a discussion. And, indeed, a discussion was started here. But the fact that the German wanted forgiveness and the fact that Wiesenthal felt that the German's question therefore became his question doesn't mean that it is necessarily our question. Let me explain.
One of the crucial issues in learning to become an adult is to be attentive to the signs of when someone else tries to make their agenda become your agenda. I learned this lesson most of all in working with students who, subtly or not, often try to transfer their not taking responsibility for doing work back to me, the teacher. Oh, they don't necessarily do it out of bad motives or in an attempt to allay feelings of guilt; they sometimes just do it as a way to salvage some dignity in a situation that often can be embarrassing or even humiliating for themselves (i.e., why they don't seem to be able to get their work done?). What I have tried to become aware of over the years is the way people try to shift burdens in life--from their shoulders onto those of anyone who will bear the burden.
What happened to Wiesenthal in his story is that the German was trying to make his question become Wiesenthal's question. He wanted some kind of forgiveness or absolution, and he seemingly felt that a Jew would be the best one to palliate his soul at the moment of death. But why should Wiesenthal feel that the German's need becomes his need, or question, too? On the one hand, of course, there is the desire to be humane even in a most inhumane situation, and so Wiesenthal feels that "tug." But why has he let the German define the question for him? Why has he let the German soldier tell him that the issue is one of forgiveness? As a matter of fact, I would say that Wiesenthal's response (silence) actually belies that fact that the issue is really one of forgiveness after all. What Wiesenthal did through his silence is to redefine the issue but, it seems, he may not have realized that his silence redefined the issue. How he did that relates to how I would respond.
So, given the caveats listed above, what would I have done? I, too, would redefine the issue, but I would have done so by raising a question or two with the soldier. If he was strong enough to say his piece, he would have been strong enough to listen to a question. The question, "Why do you think that I am the one who can forgive you?" or, alternatively, "Do you think that because I am a Jew I can forgive you for your actions?" I would not have let the German get away with his insistent, and intrusively burden-shifting question, without having him explain his need for the question in more detail. Why did he think that a Jew was the right person to absolve him? How could one Jew speak for all Jews? Is he looking for someone to deny what he had done? To say that he still will go to heaven if he admitted his guilt? To say that he still lived a valuable life even if he ended it in the way he did? What really does the man want? These are some of the questions I would need for the man to sort out.
You might feel that this level of intrusive questioning on my part is either irrelevant, cruel or painfully inappropriate with a suffering person. But, if a person is trying to lift a burden onto you, why not examine whether you want to take it on you? Maybe it will weigh you down in unhelpful ways. Maybe it can best be borne by someone else. Maybe the person who wants to transfer the burden simply has to live with it.
Thus, as I conclude my thoughts about The Sunflower, I do so with gratitude to Wiesenthal for posing the question that helped me sort out my reaction to it all and for letting me read some precious stories of a few of the respondents. But, in general, I think that the issue of forgiveness, though helpful to raise, has to be broken down into bite-size morsels. Otherwise people will choke and not enjoy the meal at all.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long